Morphosis Madrid Project: Rethinking Social Housing

Morphosis Madrid Project: Rethinking Social Housing
By Rachel M. Gamble

In recent years there has been a growing movement towards social housing units, to increase living space in cities. The need to condense city space more effectively seems to have been especially strong following the World Wars. With this post-war rise in public housing came the development of highly functionalist social housing blocks, in which comfort and aesthetics tastes were not considered important. These buildings were purely scientific and objective, with one simple building unit that was repeated in a mechanical way so that all the tenants occupied exactly the same kind of space. Since then social housing buildings have continued to compromise both aesthetics and comfort in an attempt to provide low tech and low budget housing.

In the 2010 Madrid social housing project by Morphosis, however, we see an exploration of how urban density can be handled in a different and less monotonous way, architecturally. It is an experimental transformation of the basic building block that breaks the continuity typical of social housing, by not disregarding human needs. To do this, Morphosis focused on the importance of community and the importance of open green spaces for the tenants - factors that strictly functional social housing complexes often ignore.

The Morphosis project successfully separates itself from other social housing blocks for a variety of reasons, but the one which stood out to me the most is its community-oriented “village” organization. The village organization of the Morphosis project rejects the notion that social housing unit need to be clinical and strictly functional, in favor of a more individualistic and community-oriented approach. The complex is not a severe tower, but is instead organized like a miniature town with many diverse spaces. It consists of two short towers, between which is a low rise, town-like network of 141 residential units. These units do not follow one pattern, but instead come in a variety of forms: two or three bedroom apartments and two story houses with up to four bedrooms for families. Since the housing units are so distinct from one another, the Morphosis project seems more like a small city to me, than a building block. The apartments and houses are separated by covered “streets,” which occasionally branch out to form plazas for neighborhood interactions.  To continue the village feel, a main thoroughfare runs through the middle of the “town.” All these blocks, walkways, and  public courtyards suggest, to me, an warmer and friendlier kind of urban housing. It encourages face-to-face interactions between the tenants, which makes it seem more like neighborhood. The Morphosis project allows people to feel ownership of their own unique dwelling unit because of how diverse it is, and allows them to connect and interact with each other because of its village organization and shared spaces.

Additionally, the Morphosis housing project sets itself apart from typical housing projects due to its open, light-permeable design that brings fresh air and green space inside. It is not an dense unit closed off from the nature around it. A variety of different outdoor spaces are available for tenants, such as upstairs terraces next to the bedrooms, fenced gardens, and plazas between the apartments. Thus, the interiors remain bright and fresh, and tenants can enjoy the sun outdoors as well. For the whole community, vegetation is planted in the courtyards and streets below, in the gracious communal landscape spaces. Additionally, the lattice-like grid spanning between the houses and apartments encourages plant growth.  Thus nature has been gently integrated with the architecture. Fresh open green space keeps the house block from becoming too dense and mechanical. In my opinion, the light-porous design makes this housing project stand in contrast to the rigid, closed apartments around it.

Into this bland suburban context of anonymous brick apartment buildings in Madrid, Morphosis has inserted a housing project that seems, to me, very sympathetic to the humans who live inside. The housing project is successful because the architects listened closely to the human need for community, sunlight, and their own unique space - a valuable lesson for architects to learn. As Charles Eames said, "Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design." Looking to the future, perhaps urban planners should consider housing projects that encourage neighbor interactions and bring fresh, green spaces to tenants. Human individuality is lost when people are made to live in spaces that are highly regimented and ordered. Such spaces disregard cultures, beliefs, and ways of living - the things that make us unique. This Morphosis project suggests that functionalism alone should not dictate the architect. Sometimes it is worthwhile to remember the people for whom the architect is designing.

Community street and green space

Tenants interacting

A different approach from the surrounding buildings

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